Politics

Was Joe Biden the Right Man for the Job After All?

Six early skeptics reconsider “electability” and their own ideas about who could beat Trump.

Joe Biden speaks into two microphones while standing in front of a U.S. flag.
Joe Biden speaks during a campaign event on Tuesday in Warm Springs, Georgia. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

At this point, we are all just waiting to see what happens on Nov. 3—or really, we are all waiting to see whom the millions of Americans who have voted early and the millions of Americans who will presumably still vote on Nov. 3 decide they want as their next president. It’s a tense time! As we wait, Slate gathered some staffers to discuss the basic question: How do we feel about Joe Biden now? Was he the right choice of candidate to put forward in this extremely consequential election? Our writers discuss.

Christina Cauterucci: Let’s start with the basics. How did you feel about Joe Biden during the primary, both in terms of your own preferences and your assessment of his electability?

For me, he was my least favorite of all the candidates who’d held political office before, besides Tulsi Gabbard. He didn’t impress me as a candidate, his policies were unimaginative and modest, and his assessment of where this country is and why seemed too optimistic—willfully naïve, even.

Lili Loofbourow: Biden was in the bottom half of my preferred candidates in the primary. (I wanted Elizabeth Warren, then Bernie Sanders.) But there were two theories of what the anti-Trump electorate wanted, right? One was that the majority that disliked Trump was ready to fight like hell for major, necessary change; the other was that people were just exhausted and wanted someone uncontroversial who could get Trump out. It seemed clear that Biden was going to be a popular choice with the latter group!

Julia Craven: Biden being electable was obvious to me because I pay attention to the Black electorate. I knew that once South Carolina had its primary, Biden would be all but catapulted into the nomination. This isn’t to ignore or erase the mass pushback from Black voters, many of them organizers, against Biden—I was hopeful that they were right, that Biden wouldn’t be the nominee, that most voters wanted something different, but alas.

Will Saletan: First I was for Kamala Harris. Then I was for Pete Buttigieg. Then I was willing to go with Amy Klobuchar if Pete couldn’t make it. Then, when Bernie looked like he might run away with it, I was willing to settle for Biden, as the only candidate who could beat Bernie. And to be honest, I think that’s why Biden won—because a lot of us decided he was the only way to head off Bernie.

Cauterucci: I think it was partially that, and partially that Biden was perceived as the only way to beat Trump. I heard that and read that from a lot of Black voters and older white liberals. I was never sold on that, because to me, he isn’t a clear or impassioned speaker, he seems like a timeworn return to the not-so-golden olden days, and he didn’t seem to offer people—especially young voters—something to get excited about.

Tom Scocca: When Joe Biden began talking about getting into the race in January 2019, I wrote, “Joe Biden as a presidential candidate would be a sad joke, and the claim that he is necessary to save the country from Donald Trump is, effectively, a claim that the country is beyond saving.”

I also wrote, “Joe Biden is telling donors he believes that the donors should believe that Joe Biden has the best chance to convince Democratic voters to believe that some of the people who voted for Trump will believe they should vote for Joe Biden. It’s not just an argument about winnability; it’s third- or fourth-order argument about winnability.” But it turns out that Joe Biden’s argument appears to have been correct.

Cauterucci: Have your perceptions of Biden changed at all since he won the primary?

Craven: No.

Saletan: Totally agree with Tom and Christina about the derivative nature of the Biden surge. A lot of Black folks in South Carolina decided this old white guy was the way to beat the other old white guy, because they figure that’s what persuadable white folks would prefer. And then, given the narrowed choice, people like me decided it would be a lot easier to sell Biden to those same persuadable white voters than to sell them Bernie. So we ended up with the candidate most people saw as the candidate least objectionable to other people.

Scocca: Yes, what’s become depressingly clear is that the country is very close to being beyond saving—that our system is so far from being a functioning democracy that it is impossible to hope that a simple majority with a clear purpose can win a presidential election. And so the polling suggests that, with that option cut off, the public is coalescing around this idea of voting for the candidate who’s least unacceptable to the largest number of people, in the hopes of restoring the principle that more votes should beat fewer votes.

Cauterucci: Right, this system of minority rule ends up advancing Trump—the most objectionable candidate to a large number of people—on the one side, and on the other side, we have the most moderate, least exciting candidate.

Loofbourow: That’s an extremely depressing and correct way of putting it.

One way my thinking about Biden has changed: I think his only political superpower is empathy, and that’s been a much more valuable tool during a pandemic. It creates a startling contrast with Trump that might have been harder to drive home otherwise.

Cauterucci: Yes, Biden during a pandemic election cycle is not Biden during a nonpandemic cycle. I have to say, though, there’s a part of me that’s warmed to Biden in the same way I always warm to candidates in the general election when they ease up on actively trashing the people and policies I do like.

Scocca: Biden has, to my surprise, been a rather shockingly good standard-bearer for this abstract and diminished vision of what our Constitution’s version of democracy can accomplish! His message about being a president for the whole country—which was once the most obvious platitude offered by every candidate—comes across as a deeply felt statement of principle when he says it, in opposition to the current president.

Loofbourow: I agree, Tom; he’s been a strikingly sincere standard-bearer for a bunch of old American ideals Republicans are currently in the process of gleefully shredding.

I honestly don’t know what do with his suggestion that some Republican senators are bound to come over to his side and help pass needed reforms. I think he believes it?

Saletan: Can’t believe I’m saying this, but Biden is so forgiving and committed to reconciliation that he’s now to my right in terms of his attitude toward congressional Republicans. The GOP’s behavior, especially on the Supreme Court seat, has pushed me toward agreeing with folks on the left that Biden is naïve about bipartisan cooperation.

Scocca: It seems like he’ll be forced very swiftly to choose between believing in the goodness of Republicans and passing any reforms.

Saletan: On Christina’s question about warming to Biden: I think about this when I see progressives applauding Mayor Pete for his Fox News hits. I’m like, “Why did you people hate on him so much in the primaries?” And the answer, mostly, is because back then, he was arguing with Warren and [“Medicare for All”], not with Fox anchors.

Loofbourow: Will, you’re making me think about the fact that Biden is taking extremely personal attacks (including Trump’s efforts in Ukraine that got him impeached) pretty impersonally, whereas Trump can’t help but make everything—including the coronavirus!—personal. It’s all about him: “I’m immune,” “They won’t stop talking about COVID to attack me,” etc. When it comes to centering the self in politics, it’s almost ludicrous to realize the extent to which they’re on opposite extremes.

Craven: Biden knows it’s the game whereas Trump thinks this is a season of The Apprentice.

Cauterucci: He’s also made me realize that in the primaries I thought too much about how candidates would fare against Trump in debates. The debates haven’t really moved the polls at all! People know whom they like!

Craven: The one concession I can give Biden is, like a few of you have said, how empathetic he’s been. He was able to shift to meet many voters where they are right now versus maintaining grittiness during a pretty hard time.

Saletan: Maybe Biden’s naïveté, likability, and decency are all the same thing. He’s a nice guy, and that makes him vulnerable to exploitation by cynical opponents if he’s president … but it also helps him get elected, because persuadable voters (or, at least, voters who see how bad Trump is and are looking for an alternative) recognize his decency and want a return to that.

Cauterucci: Will, did Biden’s choice of your favored candidate as VP make you more excited to vote for him?

Saletan: No, because what I liked about Harris was that she’s the best presenter. I thought she would be the strongest at taking the fight to Trump. But once I discovered that I could get a candidate who was good at talking to Middle America and understood policy and was sensible (Pete), I went to him.

Cauterucci: The oldest, whitest, most establishment and male-apologist candidate won the primary. Should we be drawing any conclusions from that, and from how he’s performing against Trump? We’ll never know how a woman or person of color might have fared against Trump after nearly four years of his presidency and his deadly response to the pandemic. But that won’t stop anyone from assuming that their predictions about Biden’s electability are being proved right.

To my mind, there are two ways to look at it: On the one hand, Biden is trouncing Trump in the polls. On the other, Trump is still insanely popular in spite of everything!!!! In many swing states, he’s doing really well! In many cases, Hillary Clinton was doing better in the polls than Biden is!!!!

Craven: I think a couple of threads are true here. 1) Trump rode into the White House on the back of a racist backlash to President Barack Obama. 2) Hillary Clinton did win the popular vote but Trump was able to slide through due to the Electoral College, which is a racist, antiquated way to decide an election. 3) Trump is bad and his administration is destroying what semblance of democracy is left. 4) Marginalized groups typically vote based on harm reduction, so of course key blocs are going to overwhelmingly show up for Biden against a president who is overwhelmingly horrific.

Saletan: I want to second Julia’s point about harm reduction. Harm reduction is really important. It’s why this country is still here 240 years later, and why it tolerates less evil than it used to. It’s great that we have idealists. Idealists do a lot of good work to roll back evil. But rolling back evil is way more important than getting the most good. And right now, the key to rolling back evil is to take out Trump. If Biden can do that, we can argue about education and health care and the other stuff afterward.

Loofbourow: Yeah, to echo Julia, I don’t think anyone is in the mood for risk-taking against Trump, and it appears to be a permanent feature of American politics that anything other than an extremely well-known white male politician counts as a risk.

Jordan Weissmann: I think there are some lessons you can draw about Biden’s performance, but they all obviously come with a massive asterisk, which conveniently would look a little like a coronavirus. The fact is that, against an extremely unpopular incumbent, a moderate, boring candidate (and, possibly, a white man who doesn’t activate a racist, sexist backlash) is probably a good person to have as your standard-bearer. There are all sorts of findings in the literature suggesting that would be the case, but honestly, it just kind of comes down to common sense. If you want the election to be a referendum on the sitting president, running a real-life generic Democrat isn’t a bad move.

What I keep wondering to myself is where we’d be if the pandemic hadn’t happened and Donald Trump were running for reelection with a 3.5 percent unemployment rate after calling off his trade war (which, as of January, is where things appeared to be headed). Joe Biden might have been leading nationally at that point, but it’s very easy to imagine this would have been a much, much different contest, which is what makes me nervous about people drawing any lessons at all from this race. So much of it is contingent on the virus.

Scocca: It seems contingent on the virus in many ways, Jordan—including the fact that Biden was able to run a real front-porch campaign—but the Trump-Biden polls have been rock-steady from the moment Biden started polling, when no one had heard of the virus.

Saletan: To Jordan’s argument—”If you want the election to be a referendum on the sitting president, running a real-life generic Democrat isn’t a bad move”—absolutely. Biden is a generic Democrat. He’s leading Trump in the polls and has led him all along, not by attracting voters in the middle but by not repelling them.

Scocca: What Biden delivered was a complete absence of volatility. Trump grumbles about Biden’s 47 years in office but the upshot of it is that everyone’s opinions of him were locked in.

Weissmann: Part of me thinks that’s right. Except, imagine how much we might have actually heard about Hunter Biden if the press hadn’t been sobered up and focused by a plague. Or maybe the Trump campaign would have figured out early that the smart way to attack Biden with seniors was to focus on his Social Security record.

Saletan: On absence of volatility: At one of Trump’s rallies, he called Biden “Sleepy Joe” and then, in the next breath, said Biden would threaten your safety. Good luck persuading people that the sleepy guy threatens their safety.

Weissmann: Right. Trump’s attacks on Biden have consistently been incoherent. He’s Sleepy Joe, the antifa stalking horse who’s going to bring socialism.

Cauterucci: Wouldn’t any other GOP presidential nominee be making the same attacks? Or is Biden the best candidate to oppose Trump, but not necessarily the best candidate in other situations?

Weissmann: I think Trump’s attacks are bizarre and incoherent in a way that’s sort of unique to his political operation. The combination of Biden and the pandemic really foiled his game plan.

It seems pretty clear that the president had two campaigns ready: a red-baiting campaign for Bernie Sanders, and an all-Hunter, all-day 2016 redux campaign for Biden. But then Biden won amid a pandemic, and as a result nobody cared about Hunter. The George Floyd protests made people care even less. So Trump just threw every attack he could at Biden, whether it had originally been meant for him or Bernie, and what we got was the most incoherent messaging operation in presidential history.

Saletan: Maybe one lesson we should take from Biden’s steady lead is that those of us who feared he would get killed or implode or fade were wrong. We made wrong assumptions, and we should think about those and revise them for the future. I thought Joe was better than Bernie (I’m more of a centrist), but I also thought Bernie was way more lucid, and that Joe was in cognitive decline (I still believe he is), and that this would cause gaffes and poor performances and would scare some people away. Instead, Biden has kept his lead, and my guess is that I underrated how important it was to just be acceptable and openhearted and make people feel comfortable with chucking the incumbent, as they were inclined to do. Though to your point, Jordan, if COVID hadn’t hit us, the inclination to chuck the incumbent wouldn’t have been as widespread.

Cauterucci: So, knowing what we know now, pandemic included, do we think Biden was the better candidate, in the end, to go up against Trump in the general?

Loofbourow: I am still way too nervous to draw lessons. He hasn’t won.

Scocca: He still has to survive till January.

Weissmann: I’m not willing to draw lessons about the nature of all American politics yet. But I am willing to draw lessons about Biden personally. My impression, early in the primary, wasn’t just that he’d lost a step but that he’d lost a lot of the attributes that had ever made him an appealing politician. (I wrote a piece about it titled “Joe Biden Is Old.” It was very subtle.)

But as you guys pointed out, he actually retained his ability to project empathy and warmth in a way that wasn’t necessarily obvious on a 10-person debate stage, and as the campaign went on, he both got better at focusing that energy as well as at just speaking. And so in that respect, regardless of the outcome, I think I underestimated him.

Saletan: I still think Pete would have delivered all the mainstream reassurance of Biden but with way more coherence and force. Eventually I think I’ll be proved right. But this year is not that year, and I’m super relieved that Biden, so far, has held a solid lead.

Scocca: I feel like I underestimated him and also accurately estimated him. The country is in very bad shape, and our theories of what we would have preferred to see in a candidate—a real transformative figure like Sanders, someone like Warren with a focused agenda for directly attacking our multifarious big problems—were unrealistic and/or insufficient. Joe Biden appears to be the best answer, or the most of an answer, we can get.

Loofbourow: I agree with Tom: Biden appears to be the best we can get. That said, the Democratic National Convention made me feel a lot better about him as a candidate than I did back in January. The combination of empathy and anger in his speech fit the moment, and the crisis, well. It might have been the first time I found Biden genuinely compelling.

Craven: I’m still not excited about Biden, nor am I convinced he was the better candidate. This ticket was a concession in order to, hopefully, maintain what is left of human rights in America. And that’s incredibly valid. It still feels unfair that voters of color have been pushed into a corner where they have to opt for what’s pragmatic versus whom they may actually want to lead the country. That’s what eats me up about elections. Black voters, Latino voters, Native American voters, etc., all deserve a country where pragmatism isn’t the ruling factor.

Cauterucci: The fact that the polls have still been so close in swing states makes me more grateful to have a boring blank slate of a nominee, even though he will not be nearly aggressive enough as president when it comes to addressing the climate change crisis, the GOP’s escalating power grabs, and Trump’s judiciary takeover. So I think he was a fine short-term choice to make, but a potentially devastating long-term one.

Scocca: I like him more than I did, but the thought of voting for him in 2024 makes me want to die.

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